Nature–nurture is a dichotomous way of thinking about the origins of human (and animal) behavior and development, where “nature” refers to native, inborn, causal factors that function independently of, or prior to, the experiences (“nurture”) of the organism. In psychology during the 19th century, nature-nurture debates were voiced in the language of instinct versus learning. In the first decades of the 20th century, it was widely assumed that that humans and animals entered the world with a fixed set of inborn instincts. But in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, the validity of instinct as a scientific construct was challenged on conceptual and empirical grounds. As a result, most psychologists abandoned using the term instinct but they did not abandon the validity of distinguishing between nature versus nurture. In place of instinct, many psychologists made a semantic shift to using terms like innate knowledge, biological maturation, and/or hereditary/genetic effects on development, all of which extend well into the 21st century. Still, for some psychologists, the earlier critiques of the instinct concept remain just as relevant to these more modern usages.
The tension in nature-nurture debates is commonly eased by claiming that explanations of behavior must involve reference to both nature-based and nurture-based causes. However, for some psychologists there is a growing pressure to see the nature–nurture dichotomy as oversimplifying the development of behavior patterns. The division is seen as both arbitrary and counterproductive. Rather than treat nature and nurture as separable causal factors operating on development, they treat nature-nurture as a distinction between product (nature) versus process (nurture). Thus there has been a longstanding tension about how to define, separate, and balance the effects of nature and nurture.